How Do We Innovate in a World of Slowing Growth?
Millions of would-be startup entrepreneurs, software developers, and other innovators are struggling. They want to create new products, design new technologies, and introduce the world to new heights of productivity and wellbeing. But we’re entering an era of slowed technological growth — at least in some ways.
How Do We Innovate in a World of Slowing Growth?
Innovation is at the heart of any thriving economy. New technologies mean new companies, new jobs, and new opportunities for all existing companies — not to mention a higher quality of life for everyone involved (in most cases). But if our rate of innovation is unsustainable, where do we go from here?
Are We Really Slowing?
First, let’s explore the idea that innovation is slowing down — because it’s not a foregone conclusion. There are strong signs that innovation is slowing in some respects, but other experts have argued that many of these forms of deceleration are temporary.
For starters, productivity growth in the United States has been slowing consistently over the past few decades.
In the 1950s, American productivity was increasing by more than 3 percent each year. By the 1980s, that rate of increase had fallen to 2 percent, and today, the rate of increase is less than 1 percent annually.
What accounts for this slowing over the past few decades?
There are several potential factors. For starters, research-centric universities like MIT and Harvard were getting more funding and more attention. Major corporations like General Electric and Ford were investing heavily in R&D departments.
And technologies originally developed during World War II (often to fuel the war effort) were commercialized and distributed, with widespread access to them for the first time.
Some experts have suggested that the lack of innovation is a direct result of a lack of investment. If we invest more heavily in R&D in corporate departments and universities alike — we’d be able to see better results.
But this doesn’t necessarily stand to reason; our R&D spending is, collectively, many times higher than it’s ever been before. And yet, the productivity rate growth remains.
Is technological innovation to blame? How can that be?
Others suggest that this is the inevitable effect of technological innovation, which we would see in any society of intelligent beings. Major breakthroughs in technology function like low-hanging fruit; they’re relatively easy to brainstorm, and it’s only a matter of time before they get developed.
Once developed, breakthroughs increase our capacity and make other “low-hanging fruit” technologies easier to think up and develop. From the 1700s through the 1950s, we saw the development of technologies like the steam engine, running electricity, nuclear power, and of course, the internet.
What’s New in Tech?
But now that we’re here, the low-hanging fruit is no longer available. Scientists and researchers are spending all their efforts making our existing technology better — not necessarily coming up with something new.
We’re developing quantum computers as a kind of last area of research for computers, since we’re already pushing up against the boundaries of physics as we know it today.
We’re coming up on some hard limits of human knowledge.
Our model of physics is relatively unchanged since the 1980s. We haven’t made many major advancements in fields like chemistry for decades. And Moore’s Law, which once practically dictated the pace of improvement for transistors — is at its end.
Are we on a tech plateau?
That said, there are some arguments that we’re merely on a temporary plateau. The idea is that, sooner or later, new technology will come along to help us ascend to new heights, opening the door to other technological developments. For example, next-generation artificial intelligence (AI) could make it possible to solve problems that are currently unthinkably hard to address.
What about rates of productivity growth?
There’s also the argument that slowing rates of productivity growth are actually because of innovation, not due to a lack of it. When innovation happens quickly or occurs in an unexpected direction, it can disrupt the economy in such a way that interferes with GDP growth.
For example, when the internet began to encroach on the territory of newspaper companies, it shrunk the profitability of an entire industry.
Directions for Innovation
So how do we continue to innovate in an era with slowing growth?
There are a handful of important possibilities to note:
- “First principles” thinking. One of the most important avenues for progression is going to be “first principles” thinking. In other words, we need to return to the ground level and rethink some of our longest-standing assumptions. When it comes to innovation, we tend to upgrade various components of an existing system or machine. For example, cars haven’t fundamentally changed in many decades; every component of modern cars is superior, in some way, to older variants, but we’re still working with an engine and four wheels. First principles thinking would encourage us to start from scratch, reimagining what a “car” is from the ground up and challenging our previous assumptions.
- Lateral expansion. We could also attempt to innovate and expand laterally. Admittedly, this doesn’t qualify as “innovation” in the purest sense. Rather than inventing something totally new, you’ll be entering new, previously unexplored territory. That could be something as simple as reaching a new target audience with your digital advertising strategy, or as complex as introducing a new industry to a developing country that currently lacks it. Existing technology is highly advanced, but not all people of the world can access it equally. New audience targeting, geographic expansion, and cost cutting can all help us progress in this area.
- Combination and repackaging. In the past decade, most of our best “innovations” have been novel ways of combining and repackaging other existing technologies. For example, the pinnacle of modern technology is, in many ways, the smartphone. But even Apple’s first-generation iPhone didn’t introduce many new features; calling, texting, emailing, and browsing the internet were all already in existence. They just weren’t packaged together conveniently. Since then, we’ve seen many new phone models, but the upgrades are relatively minor, such as more detailed cameras and slightly faster processors.
Supporting Further Innovation
Innovation doesn’t typically happen in a vacuum. It most often happens in dense teams, with strong leaders, and the backing of tons of interested investors and supportive partners. In other words, our best innovators need support.
So how do we, collectively, support further innovation and growth?
- Investment. One straightforward method is to pour mor money into research and development. With more investment, scientists, inventors, and developers can do more. Of course, there are some limitations here; our R&D spending is higher than ever, yet it’s not giving us a steady conveyor belt of new technologies.
- Risk. Culturally, we need to embrace risk and rethinking long-standing structures and systems. It’s a risky move to rethink our concept of a car from the ground up, especially if you’re starting a brand new company to do it.
- Public recognition. We also need to recognize that innovation is slowing and behave accordingly, as consumers. The most recent iPhone isn’t substantially different than the previous generation; perhaps we can throw our enthusiasm behind more novel, innovative presentations.
- Political theories. It’s also worth noting that people from different political backgrounds have different ideas for tackling this issue. For example, some could suggest the best solution is to foster a truly free, capitalistic market that naturally encourages entrepreneurs. Others may believe that more government control and investing could develop ideas that a free market may not support.
Toward the Next Generation of Technology
The human thirst for innovation and growth is unquenchable, so if we’re currently in the middle of a technological slowdown, the optimistic view is that this is only temporary. We’ll continue making iterative progress in areas that can continue progressing and eventually stumble upon a major breakthrough that forces us to reconsider everything we used to know.
However, if we’re going to find that new technological breakthrough, and support a healthy economy while we wait for its arrival — it’s important that we recognize this slowdown and foster innovation in any way we can.
Productivity increases may have slowed, but they’re still increasing — and that should give us plenty of momentum to keep growing for decades to come.